Posts tagged ‘word’

July 17, 2015

Especially devious false friends

My husband pointed out a particularly devious pair of false friends for the German speaking crowd out there to me the other day and so I decided to write a quick blog about it.  The culprits are:

Pathetic (engl.)

Pathetisch (d.)

Let’s tackle pathetic first.  The word has two meanings, both not particularly pleasant.  The first basically means “in such a bad state that it arouses pity”.  An example would be “the poor abandoned dog looked pathetic, I had to adopt him”.  Synonyms would be pitiable, heart-breaking, distressing.

The second, and probably more common usage means “miserably, completely inadequate”.  Examples would be “his performance was absolutely pathetic. It was a disgrace” or me to my son “a B in math is pathetic, you shouldn’t ever have a grade worse than an A-.” (I am not crazy, the boy is a math whiz and anything worse than an A- indicates laziness, not lack of understanding).

Let’s turn our attention to “pathetisch” – it means passionate, maybe a bit too much so, solemn, declamatory.    The word can have a negative connotation and indicate that the speaker is totally overdoing it, might be showing off , use overblown or sententious language.  What it does not mean is paltry, miserable, abject, pitiable.

So one needs to be careful here.  Though a “pathetischer” talk can be annoying and too much it is a far cry from pathetic.

Another devious pair is sensible (eng.) and sensibel (d.).

It is sensible to wear sunscreen, esp. if you have sensitive skin.

It is sensible to wear sunscreen, esp. if you have sensitive skin.

The English sensible means rational, practical, prudent and is used in sentences such as “She is wearing boots for the hike, that is very sensible” or “Although I really would like you to participate in the meeting it is sensible to stay home if you are sick.”

The German “sensibel” on the other hand means “sensitive” in English.  It is used for example when talking about people “eine sensible Person” is a sensitive person not a sensible person. The word is,  particularly devious in German as it is spelled “sensibel” in some cases (das Kind ist sensibel – the child is sensitive) but takes the English looking version “sensible” although pronounced quite differently, if used as an adjective in certain cases “das sensible Kind weint” (the sensitive child is crying”).

So you can see who a prudent, rational person can quickly become a sensitive one if Germans are involved.




July 13, 2015


Those little articles can be tricky beasts and their usage varies between English and German in subtle ways that are sometimes difficult to pinpoint.

Before looking at differences is usage it makes sense to first establish what the correct usage of the English articles – a/an, and the – are and when using an article would be wrong.

The rules are fairly simple.

For countable nouns – that is nouns that one can put a number in front of such as 1 blogger, 40 readers, 9 roses, etc.

  • both a/an and the can be put in front of the noun, depending on the context
  • A countable noun in the singular needs an article “I am talking to the teacher” or “I am eating an apple”
  • If used in the plural without an article one refers to all of that thing, e.g. “Apples are yummy.” Meaning apples in general are yummy, not just the one you are eating right now which would be “the apple is yummy.”
  • The first time you use a countable noun, generally, you would use the indefinite article “I am reading a book.” subsequently the definite article is used as one refers to a specific embodiment of that thing “Is the book interesting?”
  • The is also use when the listener knows which thing one refers to in the following example: “the phone is ringing”. e.g. when it is your one and only phone that is ringing vs. “a phone is ringing” when it could be your landline, your cell phone, your husband’s or even the neighbors’ phone.
  • “an” is used in front of words starting with a vowel sound, e.g. “an apple” or “an herb garden”.  If a word does not start with a vowel sound “a” is used such as “a flower”, a house” and “a user”. These examples make it clear why vowel sound is important, not vowel.  A word can start with a vowel but not a vowel sound such as “user” or it can start with a consonant but a vowel sound, such as “herb” as the h in “herb” isn’t pronounced making the word sound like “erb”. One needs to be careful with the h, though, not all h’s are dropped and hence it is “a history”, not “an history” because the h is not silent. After all it isn’t ‘istory, although the French might pronounce it that way.

“water is precious” – no article, as this refers to water in general. But: “The water was very cold” – meaning that the specific water I put my hand/foot in was cold, which wouldn’t come as a big surprise in this case as it was winter in Germany. (c) Tina Baumgartner

The other group of nouns are uncountable words, which, obviously, you can’t put a number in front.  A few examples are: water, happiness, luck, money.  Of course in many cases you can put a unit of measure in front that makes them countable, as in 3 bottles of water or 2 suitcases full of money but then it is the bottles or suitcases you are counting, not the water or money.  Obviously that does not generally work with happiness or luck or hope, etc.

So in the case of uncountable words:

  • generally you cannot use a/an in front of them.
  • generally you can’t make an uncountable noun a plural “waters”, “lucks” and “happinesses” are not proper words, though is special circumstances that might work, e.g. “the waters are deep” – a case where “water” doubles for a body of water such as a lake or maybe river not water in general, or “monies” a technical term used in finance.
  • if you use an uncountable noun with no article if it means that thing in general, e.g. “water is precious”, “I am a great believer in luck.” etc.
  • and finally you use an uncountable noun with “the” to talk about a particular example of that thing. “The money I raised will be donated”, “The water in the Sierra Nevada tasted very good.” “you won’t believe the luck I had in the last poker game”.

This sounds like a lot but really isn’t too bad and rather easy to remember.

There are, of course, exceptions which sound weird to the ear of a non-native speaker and even my non-native ears with almost 2 decades of speaking English.  Those will be discussed in a later blog.  Stay tuned.


July 2, 2015

Presumed English

A few words recently came to my attention that Germans often get wrong but that are not false friends per se.  It is more that everybody presumes that these are English/American words because they sound English when in fact their are not.  These mistakes are hard to avoid – because they are made in the conviction that the words/terms used are English and as such never questioned.

Here are a few examples.

The most well-known one is “Handy” the term universally used in Germany for a mobile or cell phone.  The “y” at the end and the English pronunciation generally used for the “a” makes people believe that they are using a proper English word.  Most are very surprised, many to the point of thinking it is a joke, when they are told that no such a thing as a “handy” exists in the English language.

Somebody asked me the other day what “handy” actually means in English but I had to pass.  Other than a slang meaning that I wasn’t prepared to discuss while the kids were in the room I couldn’t think of any.

The puzzling term "beamer"

The puzzling term “beamer”

A funny one, and probably an American English rather than British English one is “beamer”.  Germans use “beamer” – an unquestionably English term – for a projector.  One of those handy-dandy things one attaches to the computer that enables one to project the computer screen to a large external screen.  There is a beam of light so, undeniably, this makes a certain amount of sense.  However, in American English a beamer is something quite different, namely a general term of a BMW.  Don’t ask me how this came about, I assume it has something to do with BMW being a mouthful and beamer keeps the B and M sound but does away with the clunky W while making it sound fast and sleek.

After having spent almost a year in Germany I fell for it myself the other day.  In a meeting I said that it would be good to have a  …. what’s that word? …. you know that thingy that projects to the wall …. a beamer.” I caught myself a split second later and corrected myself but not before seeing some blank stares and silly grins.

The list keeps going:

Public viewing

In English, as Wiki states, is the condition of a deceased person, often of high social stature, whose body is available for public viewing.

In German or rather “Denglish”: the live broadcast of a sporting event to a public square on which 100 to many 1000s will rather to watch together.

Body Bag

In English those dreary black plastic bags that are used to remove corpses from a crime scene

In German/Denglish: a messenger bag like accessory that is worn close to the body

There are a bunch more but those are a few of the good ones.  If you have a favorite please let me know!

September 11, 2012

Dirty words

dirty words, no longer just the usual suspects and now featuring what used to be honorable words like government and liberal, pic:

In 1972 the comedian George Carlin defined seven “dirty words” – offensive or indecent words – that could not be used on TV.  To this day most of the words on Carlin’s original list remain taboo on American television and are bleeped out should they happen to escape somebody.

What these seven words are I leave up to your imagination or the power of a Google search or – as a shortcut – the clicking on the following link.

If that was it, this wouldn’t be much of a post but things have become a little more complicated as new “dirty words” in the second sense of the word – namely ” things regarded with dislike or disapproval” – are added all the time.  Good old terms like “government” and “liberal come to mind.  I thought of this as a rather recent development but at least for liberal I found an article complaining about this 10 years ago (here).  It is still quite unclear to me how liberals could let that happen, especially considering the definition (type define Liberal into Google) “Open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.” – who wouldn’t want to be that?  And who would want to be the opposite (that would be conservative then): “closed to new behavior or opinions and unwilling to let go of traditional values”.

Government as a dirty word goes even further back, it has it roots in the 60s but the person who made this way of thinking popular was Ronald Reagan in the 80s.  Here is a NPR article about this topic.

The worst of all dirty words appears to be atheist.  But that is a long story and deserves a separate blog post.

September 9, 2012


No swearing allowed, “egats1” should be alright, pic:

I haven’t heard that in a while and when I read it in a blog the other day I thought “wow, that is a good one and so quaint!”

One uses the expression “egads!” in place of another swear word or expression of profanity which would be much worse or offending.  In polite conversation, or in business it is rarely opportune to swear or use profanities and so a word with a reduced level of objectionable quality might just be what is needed.  especially since people will generally know what you really want to say and will understand that you feel rather strongly about that topic.

The good old “egats” is said to derive from the expression “oh, god” – itself not a profanity but in a society that is so sensitive to the slightest hint of disrespect against religion (at least some) still not something to be said lightly, casually or frequently.

Other such words include “shoot” for the good old “sh..” – you get it,  frigging or flipping  for the f-bomb, and heck for hell.  Examples are abound: “let’s get the heck out of here”, “Shoot, it’s starting to rain and I forgot the flipping umbrella.”

If you want to check out an example for egads have a look at the blog I found it in.

September 5, 2012

Even Madder

No text needed 🙂 , pic:

As discussed the other day there are a number of slang words for a mental institution but that number pales in comparison to the words and expressions used to convey the idea of a person being insane.

Crazy is the probably the least offensive one, it can also mean cool in a with a bizarre or risky  edge to it.  “The way you skied down that double black diamond hill was just crazy.”

Others are:

nutty /nuts /nuttso, cuckoo, loony, lunatic, bananas, whacky, whacko  – are all possibilities (there are more, of course).  Obviously there are shades of grey here, bananas implies more unbelievable and ridiculous than seriously crazy, whereas wacko or whacky  has more of an element of stupid and strange to it “this plan of yours is just totally whacky, it will never work.”

For the geeks among us – and I haven’t heard this used in a long time probably since the days when I attended #1 geek school in the country – non-linear.  Which implies that a person, all of a sudden, displays some strange and out of character behavior, e.g. the quite withdrawn student who, suddenly, one night goes all out, parties until the wee hours and then pays a hefty price the next day in form of a hang-over and for the rest of his student days by having to endure jokes like “do you remember the day when Joey went completely non-linear.  I still remember his face before he passed out.”

There is more good crazy stuff here- enough for another post some time.

March 6, 2012

Rare and amusing insults

Call him a hobbledehoy and he'll think you are a total geek, pic:

Thanks to a friend’s Facebook post I just found Merriam-Webster’s list of 10 rare and amusing insults.  That totally warrants a blog entry – or two.  I went through the list and have to admit that I did not know 9 1/2 out of the 10, the half is one I think I might have heard before but really couldn’t be sure.

Let’s start with that: mooncalf which stands for a foolish, somewhat simple- and absent-minded person.  A bit more about the phrase, should you be interested is to be found here.

Another one that seems appropriate for somebody with a young boy who has a fair chance of becoming a geek: hobbledehoy, which stands for an awkward, gawky young man. The origin of that one seem to be foggy – quite like its future.  Problem with an insult – especially when hurled at a young man with a large arsenal of inappropriate word is, that if neither he nor any of his buddies understand the word or even that it is supposed to be a insult you might as well have cursed him in classical Greek.

October 26, 2011

Onomatopoeic Words

Onomatopoeia in action, pic:

I know from my own experience as an ESL (English as Second Language) speaker that “onomatopoeic” is an extremely valuable word when it comes to impressing native speakers.  It is kind of hard to pronounce but that does not matter – since most people don’t know it it does not matter if one gets it slightly wrong or quickly rushes through the back part of the word with it’s difficult combination of vowels.

So what does onomatopoeic mean? An onomatopoeic word  imitates the sound it represents.  Huh?

The concept is easiest explained with a few examples:

Cuckoo – the name of the bird imitates the sound the animal makes

Sizzle – imitates the sound of something hot in a pan

Gurgle -imitates the sound of somebody – well, gurgling – water

A few more: rattle, roar, screech

A lot of words used in cartoons fall into the onomatopoeic category: plop, bang, honk, boom, zap, whack, vroom, wham, zoom –  my 7 year old son would probably know a lot more of these words.

May 10, 2011


I don’t like coffee so I am not speaking from experience here but the topic coffee has to be covered in any blog about America and American culture.  Coffee is very much a part of American everyday life, from morning until night.

Coffee in an American dinner - served with lunch, pic:

Most of my coffee-drinking European friends have little more than disdain for the American brew, which they consider too weak and flavorless.  Coffee these days comes mainly in the form of large, overpriced take-out products with all sorts of additions, from the usual milk and sugar to the less common one like caramel or hazelnut flavorings.  The variation of sizes, flavors, additions and permutations seems as limitless as the Americans desire to drink it everywhere and all the time.

The opposite end of the fancy coffee drink is the lowly dinner coffee – brewed and then kept on a percolator until empty, weak, made generally of inferior quality beans this is the stuff you get served in traditional American dinners.  The stuff they used to dring in that form back in the 50s, probably even before then.

One wired thing about American coffee consumption (especially the dinner type) is that people consider it a “regular drink”, like water or maybe even iced tea.  They have it with lunch, like the Germans have beer (or mineral water) with lunch and the French red wine (or mineral water).  So they order a burger with fries and coffee for lunch.

My coffee drinking European friends find that quite strange.

May 3, 2011

Things I might never learn

There are some things that are very unintuitive and hard to learn in another language.  Maybe the things that are difficult to learn are individual – maybe not.  I’ll have to ask around.

For me something that I probably will never learn are names of bird and fish.  With fish, my main problem is with the critters one eats.  I know what a shark looks like, I even know the Spanish word for shark.  I can also handle salmon and tuna with bravado –  but as soon it gets much more specific I have to pass.  I eat Mahi Mahi and striped bass, talapia, sole and haddock without any idea what these things are and how they are called in German.  Same for birds – but there I know the few ones one eats – but the rest: forget it.

Let's make it even more complicated and throw in some French, pic:

On a day to day basis this isn’t a real issue – I am not a bird watcher so who cares what that little fluffy looking birdie over there is called.  Where it really matters and I fall woefully short is when it comes to different kinds of meat.  Here I am with my husbands ultimate Austrian cookbook in hand in the meat section at the supermarket puzzling whether I should get a Porterhouse steak, or a skirt steak, which one is better and which one translates most accurately into what the recipe calls for.

Unfortunately, the people working at the local supermarket are no help.  I learned that the hard way when one day I waltzed in and after some searching asked where the veal was.  The  guy working the meat counter looked at me with a puzzled expression “veal, veal …. hmm …. that’s baby cow, right?”

So I keep puzzling and buying the wrong stuff and inventing recipes around the wrong piece of meat.  Helps my creativity.  Got to look at the bright side, right?  That’s a very American thing to do.